White Men Can't Pass

After Keith Van Horn threw down a spectacular dunk during a game against the Detroit Pistons in 1998, Jayson Williams, his black teammate on the New Jersey Nets, explained Van Horn's feat to reporters this way, "I told you he wasn't white. He's light skinned." Williams was joking. Van Horn is white, but the joke resonated because Van Horn's game is so different from the stereotype of the typical white player.

Yet, what seemed obvious to Williams (yes, the same Jayson Williams who, now retired, was recently charged in the shooting death of his limousine driver) was less clear to the staff of the Utah Jazz. When Van Horn worked out for them, before the NBA Draft, Jazz officials named three players who they thought he resembled: Tom Gugliotta, Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc, all of whom are white. Though Van Horn disagreed with the Jazz's assessment, he has found such racial pigeonholing hard to shake. In fact, long before he reached the NBA, Van Horn, like most talented white players of his generation, had grown accustomed to being compared to Larry Bird, even though his game differs dramatically from the former Celtics star.

"People are going to say what they want to say, and I don't get concerned about it," Van Horn told The Sporting News in 1998, voicing his frustration with the practice of comparing white players only to other white players.

In some ways, it's odd that the racial pigeonholing persists in NBA. After all, the small world of basketball could make a plausible claim to being the segment of American society least troubled by racial prejudice. The predominance of minorities in the NBA and major college basketball has forced any white person wishing to get involved with the game to embrace, or at least tolerate, blacks and their culture. More than the NFL or Major League Baseball, both of which have failed to bring the diversity of the playing field into the front office, the NBA has made substantial, if incomplete, progress in the hiring of minorities for management positions.

Yet, as Van Horn's story illustrates, in some respects, basketball has a long way to go before it can truly be termed colorblind. Most basketball talent scouts, writers and fans cling doggedly to racial stereotypes. This phenomenon is most obvious in the annual evaluation of college players that occurs prior to the NBA draft in June. With remarkable consistency, draft analysts compare white prospects only to other white players and black prospects only to other black players.

>A defense can be made for this practice. After all, it's hardly a secret that black and white basketball players often play in very different styles. Back in 1975, Jeff Greenfield explained in an article for Esquire that white basketball "is the basketball of patience and method." And black ball "is the basketball of electric self-expression." These general terms easily translate into specific basketball skills. White players tend to be excellent passers and shooters (shooting, perhaps more than any other basketball skill, is acquired, rather than innate) who thrive in highly structured games. Black players, flashy and athletic, flourish in the free-flowing, dunk-filled games found on city playgrounds. For even the most casual fan, the names Stockton and Bird (white stars), and Jordan (the young Jordan, anyway) and Erving (black stars) conjure up images to match Greenfield's words.

In this context, it may seem logical for talent evaluators to judge white players against other white players. For example, it's hard to quibble with Dave D'Alessandro of The Sporting News when he writes of Pat Garrity, "The second coming of Brian Evans. Shooting is Garrity's meal ticket." Garrity's game does indeed resemble Evans'. Yet it's worth noting that exactly the same description fits many black players, like Dennis Scott.

More puzzling than the Garrity comparison, though, is the case of Sam Jacobson, a white guard who finished his career at the University of Minnesota in 1998. The Sporting News summed up Jacobson's game this way: "You hear Rex Chapman comparisons for his athleticism and his ability to go over people." This, of course, is a classic description of a black perimeter player. Yet, the comparison is to Chapman, who is also white, even though there are a dozen black players whose games' resemble Jacobson's at least as much as Chapman's does. And notice D'Alessandro's phrasing, "You hear Rex Chapman comparisons." The opinion is not just that of D'Alessandro; he's reporting the consensus of the league's talent evaluators.

Still, the Jacobson-Chapman comparison was not wildly off base, just blinkered. But what's most revealing about the race-consciousness of the basketball community are the examples of white players for whom there's no good white comparison. Take Mike Dunleavy Jr., the white All-American candidate for Duke University. NBA Draft.net compares Dunleavy to Larry Bird. Yet Dunleavy is significantly quicker and jumps far higher than Bird ever did. And while both are good shooters, it's absurd, not to mention unfair to Dunleavy, to compare him to Bird, arguably the greatest shooter in the history of the game.

Aside from shooting, Dunleavy and Bird have very different games. Bird was a terrific post player and ranks, along with John Stockton, Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd, as one of the greatest passers of the last 20 years. Rail thin, Dunleavy appears more comfortable on the perimeter than in the post. More to the point, there are several black players, including Grant Hill (who as a Duke graduate would seem to make a natural comparison), who share Dunleavy's attributes more than Bird does.

While the Bird-Dunleavy comparison is especially tortured, it might be explained by the fact that Dunleavy does have many of the qualities associated with white players. A coach's son, he's fundamentally sound, a good shooter, ball-handler and passer. In other words, even though he can run and jump better than most Caucasians, Dunleavy is still basically a "white" player.

But how would the basketball community react if there were a white player who incontestably played with the "electric self-expression" associated with black players?

When point guard Jason Williams (no relation to Jayson Williams, or, for that matter, to Duke's current point guard, also named Jason Williams) joined the Sacramento Kings in the 1998-1999 season, he brought national attention to one of the NBA's most maligned teams. No one had ever seen anything quite like his repertoire of no-look passes and behind the back dribbling. Williams, regarded by some as the best ball-handler in the history of the game, once received a standing ovation for a missed lay-up. Rick Adelman, his coach at Sacramento said of him, "Sometimes he does things, I'm not sure the officials know, 'Is that legal or not?' I'm not really sure. He's got that flair.

Soon, TNT, the network that carries NBA games on cable, juggled their schedule to fit Kings games in, and Williams' astounding passes became a regular feature on ESPN's Sportscenter. Williams' game was flashy, playground through and through.

At first, NBA commentators seemed to reach reflexively for another white player to compare Williams to. Pete Maravich was the best they could come up with. Maravich, who died of a heart attack at age 40, shared Williams' flair for the spectacular play. But in some ways it is a strange, even strained, comparison. After all, Maravich was a prolific scorer (Williams is not), was several inches taller than Williams and actually played a different position. Byron Scott, the former Laker star, who was an assistant coach for the Kings during Williams' first season, dismissed the comparison as purely racial.

But even those able to admit that Williams style was unique, could not seem to escape the incongruity between Williams' game and his skin color. He soon had a legion of racially tinged nicknames, including White Shadow, Thrilla in Vanilla, and the one that stuck, White Chocolate. Those hoping that Williams would break down the stereotype of the white player were disappointed. Instead, Williams, along with Van Horn, came to be regarded as the exceptions that proved the rule.

So why does the basketball community continue to sort players into racial pigeonholes, even when the fit is poor? In a lengthy 1997 article for Sports Illustrated entitled, "What Ever Happened to the White Athlete?" S.L. Price suggested that the practice of comparing white players to other white players was connected to the decline of white stars in the NBA following after Bird's retirement. Price argued that the practice was part of a "desperate effort to elevate any white talent to stardom."

Yet such a suggestion is unconvincing, for it fails to explain why such racial pigeonholing occurs even for marginal players like Pat Garrity or Sam Jacobson, who will never become household names. Nor does it explain the reverse practice, which is every bit as common, whereby slow, methodical black players, like Dell Curry, are compared to other slow and methodical black players, like Trajan Langdon.

Rather, it seems to me, the phenomenon persists because the stereotypes of white and black basketball players dovetail so perfectly with the deeper archetypes that are at the core of how Americans think about race. White players are perceived as the athletic equivalent of white businessmen and politicians: stodgy, dull and disciplined. Black players are seen as the athletic equivalent of black preachers and musicians: flashy and creative.

This conception of the differences between the races, termed "romantic racialism" by historian George Fredrickson, dates back at least to the 19th century, but it took its current form in the early 20th century. By the 1920s, large numbers of black migrants had relocated to northern urban centers like Harlem and the South Side of Chicago. There, distinctively African American cultural forms, including jazz, were introduced to a sympathetic white audience. Many white liberals who caught the fever of the "New Negro Renaissance" had to negotiate a looking-glass world in which they were the minority. These distinct moments in American history ultimately reveal just as much about our culture's anxieties over race as the more straightforward stories of black accommodation to white culture.

In the 1920s, for example, University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park and Carl Van Vechten, a photographer and writer who was known as "white America's guide to Harlem," embraced black culture, feeling that it was somehow more authentic than their own. "The Negro," Park wrote, "is primarily an artist, loving life for its own sake. His metier is expression ..."

As Fredrickson explained in his seminal work, The Black Image in the White Mind, white liberals believed that blacks "were basically exotic primitives, out of place in white society because of their spontaneity, emotionalism and sensuality." As W.E.B. Dubois pointed out, liberals like Van Vechten and Park often saw in African American culture the obverse of what they disliked in their own. Dubois accused them of "longing for a portrayal of Negroes of that utter licentiousness which conventional civilization holds whites back from enjoying." Ancient though these racial archetypes may be, they are not wholly artificial. Dubois, who deplored the glorification by whites of the "utter absence of restraint" in black culture, acknowledged that such a portrayal was "untrue, not so much as on account of its facts, but on account of its emphasis and glaring colors."

Contemporary ethnographic studies have confirmed, speaking generally, that blacks and whites still have different values about athletics and performance. One study that was detailed in Thomas Kochman's Black and White Styles in Conflict (University of Chicago, 1981) found that when first graders were asked to relate a story to their classmates, white students were literal, obedient and modest, placing great value on uniformity. Black students, meanwhile, emphasized individuality and vitality. That these different values have tended to produce different modes of playing basketball should surprise us no more than the idea that black and white ministers have different styles of oratory.

Of course, in the post civil rights era, it should hardly be a shock to find white players playing "black" and black players playing "white." So what are we to make of the fact that, even now, so few people in the world of basketball seem capable of seeing past skin color to the qualities possessed by individual players?

The idea that race retains a powerful hold in the minds of the basketball community should not, I think, detract from the progress that the NBA has made. Rather, the persistence of racial stereotypes, even in the face of clear examples, like Van Horn and Williams, who do not fit the mold, may suggest just how difficult it is for even well intentioned Americans to think outside of racial categories. It may, too, suggest how far American society has to go before it can truly be considered colorblind.

Daniel Greenstone teaches American history at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois. His short stories have appeared in 3 AM Magazine, Lynx Eye and other publications.

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